In La La Land, director Damien Chazelle owes a lot to the magic of movies from a bygone age. His visuals are awash in a grainy Hollywood sheen, imbued with the wonder of cinematic greats. The guy loves movie magic, and he’s eager to pay tribute to iconic moments of the cinematic canon.
There’s no moment more cinematic than when Neil Armstrong’s foot touched the surface of the moon – on 20 July 1969, 530 million people watched a naval aviator from Ohio walk a surface never before touched by human beings. The craft, dedication and precision leading to that moment was monumental – and cinematic as hell.
So, First Man is a story in line with the recent Oscar winner’s MO, and a classically American story of exceptionalism and individualism. This narrative has played out in more biopics than can be counted, which is why it’s significant how Chazelle – as he tweaked the classic Hollywood musical with a modern sense of melancholy – adjusts the format ever so slightly to play against expectations, rendering a more modest, suitable tribute to the first man on the moon.
Ryan Gosling, with his deft ability to skew quintessential Yankie stoicism with flecks of hidden unrest, is a well-suited avatar for Armstrong. The man himself was humble, self-effacing and unwelcoming of the spotlight. That discomfort and a laser-clear dedication to scientific achievement play intricately across Gosling’s unassuming but deceptively complex performance.
The death of Armstrong’s infant daughter Karen provides a deeply affecting arc through which Gosling channels delicate emotions. Moments when the facade slips are the finest in the movie.
Armstrong’s life on earth makes up a decent bulk of the film, though it’s weakest section of the piece. Nauseating shakycam is completely out of place and distracts from the emotions Josh Singer’s screenplay tries to evoke. Luckily, the scenes are filled with fine performances – especially in the intimate one-to-ones between Gosling and Claire Foy as Armstrong’s wife Janet.
Foy is excellent hinting at the mounting restlessness as Janet watches her husband excel from the confines of her life as a housewife. It’s unfortunate that these are the sorts of parts still lumped on excellent actresses in movies about remarkable men, but within those boundaries Foy acquits herself. A delicate, measured score from Justin Hurwitz, lacing a tender theremin in among more typical strings, works hard with the actors to add humanity where Chazelle’s direction fails.
Where the film truly takes off (sorry), is in Armstrong’s misadventures in space. A stunning opening test flight is claustrophobic and visceral – a blaze of noise and chaos balletically tied together by Chazelle’s assured hand. He is a obviously bravura director of set pieces who stumbles in the simpler moments, moments at home carry a jittery, distracted energy like he’s anxious to get back in a rocket again and play, not unlike his protagonist.
Each stratospheric excursion is a showcase of artful tension and awe – lingering shots of the curvature of the earth between flurries of confusion are stunning on an IMAX screen thanks to Linus Sandgren’s luscious cinematography.
Chazelle and his team’s better attributes operate harmoniously in a stunning final sequence – the moon landing is realised with a workmanlike intensity and sense of scope true to the real thing, still prominent in our collective cultural memory. As a culmination of a riveting sequence of scenes about brilliant men working together like clockwork to achieve a greater goal, it is euphoric.
When the movie makes its final return to earth, its ultimate conclusion feels more flat, less earned.
Like Armstrong, Chazelle’s head is in the sky, less concerned with the real life waiting at home – as such, the payoff when Neil and Janet reunite is unconvincing and shallow. It’s a shame, because First Man is more than capable of soaring when it wants to – but in those quieter moments that could have lifted a good film to greatness, Chazelle chooses to drift.
Dir: Damien Chazelle
Prd: Wyck Godfrey, Marty Bowen, Isaac Klausner, Damien Chazelle
Scr: Josh Singer
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll
DOP: Linus Sandgren
Editor: Tom Cross
Music: Justin Hurwitz
Run Time: 141 Minutes
First Man is in cinemas from 12th October 2018.